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For The Love of the Game

Kelsea O'Brien /February 14, 2023

Love, above everything else, is one of life’s greatest gifts. It comes in innumerable forms, in slow waves, or all at once. It can be all encompassing or stabilizing. It can rip your heart into a million pieces or it can fill you up until you feel you’re about to burst. Whether it was the first time you held your new baby, picked up a guitar, or recognized the way someone went out of their way to make you feel special. It lives so deeply within us, even when it is a distant memory. If you’re one of the lucky ones, that love will stay with you forever, whether in a partner or in the form of something special, something that can never be taken away from you, like the love of the game of basketball.

“It was from such a young age,” says head coach Eric Khoury of his love of basketball. “Growing up with my older brother and older cousins, they loved it, so I’ve been watching it since whenever they started watching it, and I’m three years younger than them. Some of my first memories are of watching basketball with them.” His love of the game may be homegrown, but it was when he first saw Tracy McGrady play that ignited the fire that would ultimately begin his basketball journey as well as an honourable mention to Alvin Williams because he just had the “coolest nickname.”

Coach Khoury’s bond with those closest to him in childhood formed his love of the game the same way that forward Kylor Kelley’s family used basketball to stay close and relate to each other. “I was pretty much forced into it,” jokes Kelley. “I started playing when I was about four, and my whole family including both of my parents played basketball. But as soon as I touched a ball I fell in love.”

While both Coach Khoury and Kelley used basketball as a means to grow closer with their loved ones, Jeremiah Tilmon Jr. used it as an escape.

“Where I’m from wasn’t the best place growing up,” admits Tilmon of his East St. Louis upbringing. “But once I took my very first flight to play basketball and saw that there was more to life than East St. Louis, it forced me to play basketball. I already forced myself to play basketball (as an escape), but once I saw the person that I could become if I stuck with it, and how much my life could change if I took it seriously, it changed me. It was the seventh grade and it changed me forever. I will never forget it.”

For Raptors rookie, Christian Koloko, his love for the game came full circle the first time he played against the man who first drew him to the sport, Kevin Durant.

“From the first time I played basketball I fell in love with it, but when I really fell in love with it was when I started watching basketball games on TV The Oklahoma City Thunder was my favourite team and Kevin Durant was my favourite player.”

The magnitude of Durant’s stardom was no different for Koloko than it would be for any fan, with the only difference being that the average fan would never be tasked with guarding the 13-time NBA All Star. “I was too scared to even talk to him. I just didn’t say anything. I couldn’t say anything because we were playing against him, but in my mind I was just like ‘Wow. I’m here now. This is a dream come true.’” Koloko can remember even the finest details of the moment his idol became his rival ‘I switched on him twice and he scored on me twice and I thought ‘Wow. He’s really like that.’

Raptors 905 guard Darryl Morsell may not have been charged with covering Kevin Durant thus far, but it was a moment in the game that made him feel like he could be Durant or any other superstar if he continued to put in the work. “I fell in love with basketball at around the age of five,” recalls Morsell. “I had made my first game winner in my first ever league, and that was a great feeling. I just wanted to play basketball from that moment on.”

It wasn’t his own game winner that captivated forward Sterling Brown, but rather watching those of his older brother, NBA veteran and two time NBA champion, Shannon Brown. “My brother was a big influence in that realm. We are about nine years apart so I grew up watching him play, from AAU to high school, to college, and then to the NBA. Watching him, watching Michael Jordan, that’s just what we do in the city (Maywood, Illinois). We go outside and play football on the concrete, play basketball. It was a lot of things that fueled that fire in me that made me want to be the best at it.”

Prior to Shannon retiring from basketball in 2018, he and Sterling, despite their nearly ten-year age gap, were able to accomplish something that all basketball obsessed siblings dream of. Signing with the Wisconsin Herd, Shannon would get the opportunity to play alongside his baby brother and biggest fan for three games when Sterling, who landed with the Milwaukee Bucks, was assigned to the Herd.

Recollecting memories of playing every sport available to him was not a path to basketball that was unique only to Sterling Brown. Both Tra-Deon Hollins and Ryan Hawkins hark back to their childhoods, where sports in general trumped everything.

“My mom always had us doing something,” says Hollins. “We couldn’t just be sitting around the house. So basketball was something I grew with and something I’m still growing with.”

Hawkins parrots Hollins’ answer, recalling the delight that sports brought, and still brings, him.

“As a kid growing up I loved every sport. It didn’t matter, anything from baseball, volleyball, track and field, cross country, I played them all. But it wasn't until high school that I realized I could probably actually do something with this. Then when I got to college (on a basketball scholarship) it was the only time in my life that I only focused on basketball and the love just came to me. I had all of the time in the world to just play one sport and the love just grew from there.”

The warmth that basketball brings does not stop when you begin to play professionally. Like the love for children, it does not divide, but multiplies. It is an outlet for passion, and for forward Aaron Epps, it is a freedom only found on the court.

“The reason why I fell in love with basketball is because basketball is a place where you can express how you feel. You can express who you are. It’s like an outlet, because there are a lot of times when people don’t feel like they can be themselves, and I feel like the basketball court is definitely where you can do that. That’s the reason why I fell in love with basketball.”

Like Epps, David Johnson falls in love with the game every time he touches the hardwood. It isn’t in anticipation of game winners or highlight reels, but the success of others that remind him of why he is head over heels for the sport. “The joy of seeing others happy while I’m playing. Getting others involved, making sure it’s a team game. When everyone is playing together, everyone is happy. I like to approach the game with the mentality of getting everyone involved first and then individual accomplishments come last.”

Love looks different to everyone. From game winners, to a bonding experience. From self expression to going to battle against someone you admire. But underneath it all, whether the darkest or the brightest days, for the Raptors 905, it is always there. Every time they tuck in their jerseys and step onto the court, every win and every loss, there is love, and basketball.